Meditation is a beautiful, yet often neglected, form of prayer and worship that deserves a special place in the spiritual lives of Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that meditation is above all a quest. \” The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking\” (CCC 2705). It is the act of quieting the mind and heart in order to spend time reflecting upon God and His works, seeking a deeper understanding so that we might discern His will more clearly.
St. Francis de Sales advocates this form of prayer in particular, “I especially recommend mental prayer, and the prayer of the heart, in particular meditation on the life and passion of our Lord…” He gives the faithful a splendid guide to meditation in his book An Introduction to the Devout Life. Along with supplying fifteen outlined meditations, he describes the basic process to ensure quiet time in prayer is fruitful.
Before beginning to dwell upon a particular topic, place yourself in the presence of God. To do this, become very still and reflect upon God’s omnipresence, realizing His greatness and your own littleness. Once in this calm disposition, humbly and passionately present your problems to God, giving Him the situations in which help and guidance are desired. Once that is completed, the actual meditation begins.
There is a vast array of appropriate topics for meditation. Pope Leo XIII wrote about the benefits of using the Rosary as a tool for meditation in several of his encyclicals; in his Laetitiae Sanctae (Commending Devotion to the Rosary) he says that the Rosary is “a powerful means of renewing our courage,” and counsels us “to dwell upon the sorrowful mysteries of Our Lord\’s life, and to drink in their meaning by sweet and silent meditation.” In Providentissimus Deus (On the Study of Holy Scripture) he also suggests the reading of Scripture, saying that “the best preachers of all ages… have gratefully acknowledged that they owed their repute chiefly to the assiduous use of the Bible, and to devout meditation on its pages.” The Catechism goes on to list “…holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the \’today\’ of God is written,” as other sources of inspiration to use during this time (CCC 2705).
St. Francis de Sales continues guiding the reader through the meditation with the following words: “after using your imagination you begin to use your understanding, and this is what we call meditation; in other words, making use of considerations to raise your heart to God and to the things of God.” Take the time to consider what you have just thought upon, and how it applies to your daily life. Then, make “spiritual acts or resolutions” which are to be carried throughout the day, constantly reminding yourself of the lessons you learned and the guidance God gave you during your meditation.
In his book, St. Francis de Sales reminds his readers that these resolutions \” are the fruit of meditation, which would be useless without them, or even harmful.\” Before closing, he exhorts us to once again humble ourselves, and thank God for the guidance and help He has provided, offering up prayers for our family, friends, and special intentions, and asking for the saints and angels intercession.
Once the meditation is finished, St. Francis de Sales advises not to rush into the noise and stress of the outside world, but rather to “take care to keep your heart undisturbed lest you spill the balm it has received; in other words, keep silence as long as possible and transfer your attention to other things quietly, trying to retain the fruits of your prayer as long as you can.”
In Exeunt, I am Anno (On the Right Ordering of Christian Life) Pope Leo XIII praises a devout meditation, writing that \” the frequent meditation upon the things of heaven wonderfully nourishes and strengthens virtue… and makes it always fearless of the greatest difficulties for the good of others.\” He continues, saying that through \” meditation upon God they will be themselves encouraged, and will more effectually excite others to the love of God.\” The great pope concludes with this powerful statement: “such, then, is the surest method for the salvation of all,” and thus places meditation above the many other avenues which lead one to Christ.
In this busy world, full of chaos and confusion, “Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly,” to “engage thought, imagination, emotion, and desire” for the greater good of themselves, Christ, and the Church (CCC 2708). May the admonitions of the faithful departed inspire within this new generation of disciples the desire to rediscover the beauty of silence, and the joy of simply reflecting upon the greatness of the Lord, quietly pondering these things in our hearts, and thus learning to follow a will much greater than our own.
So what exactly is different about Christian meditation? Well, at the core, there are 3 big differences:
1. Why we do it
The first difference comes down to why we’re doing it in the first place. When I was meditating using the mindfulness apps, I felt like I was trying to exercise my mind into building the ability to be more present and to better myself. There’s nothing inherently wrong or right with that, but Christian meditation and prayer are distinctively different.
The point of Christian prayer and meditation is to grow deeper in a relationship and friendship with God. Sure, through this relationship you are challenged to become a better person and be more mindful, but that is not the primary goal. The primary goal is to sit with and spend time with a friend.
2. How we do it
The ‘how’ is the second biggest difference. The eastern and secular mindfulness meditation methods I had exposure to were focused largely inward: on your body, your breath, and your mind.
Christian meditation may seem like it starts off somewhat similarly. It often begins with much of the similar deep breathing exercises in order to recollect and ground ourselves. As Cardinal Ratzinger writes:
“[All of these dangers do] not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.”
But this is where the similarities stop. The focus of the sessions must always turn from inward to outward, from ourselves to something…or rather Someone, who is at the same time both separate from ourselves and deeper within. To humble ourselves with the realization that we’re sitting in the presence of God. And through this new kind of mindfulness, to become closer to, and more like God.
The last big difference in terms of the ‘how’ is who really is in control. In eastern practices, the more you practice letting your thoughts pass by, the better you get at it. You’re not supposed to try to force anything, but in the end, it’s you who is doing the work to improve. In Christian prayer, this isn’t the case. Our work is simply to put ourselves in the position to let God take over.
3. What you get out of it
The goal of mindfulness meditation is often described as finding calm, escaping stress, relieving anxiety, becoming happier, etc. But it is essentially the opposite of Christian meditation. While it is calming, peaceful, and joyful in many ways, the Christian life isn’t one of escape, but rather one of finding meaning and purpose in deep struggles, heavy burdens, and intense suffering. Our aim is not to discover a stress-free beach and sit watching the waves come and go, but instead to bend down, pick up our cross and give our lives to God. And when we do, we find a friend, our cross becomes lighter, and we find a Love and Peace deeper than anything a beach could offer us.